Doing fun things with old people

The world is ageing fast. Every day, 10,000 American baby boomers turn 65. Figuring out what to do with them (/us 1) is something we need to think about. Better yet if it can increase well-being across the world.

Photo by Janosch Lino on Unsplash

A recent Economist article described how some university campuses in the United States are building retirement homes. I hope they will forgive me quoting large parts of their article.

Most residents are having a ball. They get a university pass, which allows them to attend the same classes and cultural events as students, but with the distinct benefit of not having to take exams. Golf buggies can drive them around the sprawling campus, though many are still fit enough to mountain bike.

In their dorms, four restaurants serve better food than college grub and amenities include an art studio, a pool and gym, and a games room. Only the second floor feels institutional, with a memory-care centre and rooms for residents who need round-the-clock attention

This is part of a wider trend. An estimated 85 colleges in America are affiliated with some form of senior living. The idea sprang from two college presidents who wanted to retire on campus in the 1980s. Today, universities from Central Florida to Iowa State to Stanford offer senior-living arrangements. Andrew Carle, at Georgetown University, estimates that as many as 20,000 older Americans live like this

Bill Gates—not that one, but an 80-year-old former newspaper editor—moved to [one of these communities] with his wife, who has a PhD in chemistry, two years ago. They have made friends with residents but also, to their surprise, with younger students. “Being among young people is really invigorating,” says Mr Gates. At “pizza and a slice of future”, a discussion group about AI with pizza served halfway through, one of the topics was whether a lifespan of 200 or 250 years would be desirable. “The 20-year-olds were enthusiastic,” he reflects, but those in their 70s and 80s “had some reservations”, he chuckles.

When I saw this, I thought it was a downpayment on heaven. Being in community, attending lectures and discussion groups, surrounded by young people … oh man … what a fantastic way to spend your life’s teatime.

I heard another example from the UK. Our church used to run a day centre for the elderly. I heard of a similar day centre that had combined with a toddler group. So instead of the elderly looking at each across a circle of high-backed chairs, the elderly were looking at each other across a circle of high-backed chairs over a space filled with toddlers doing toddlery things. I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t be fun, perhaps even for all concerned.

Old people are changing. But the picture I have had of them so far in the UK is people on the edge of things, and unbelievably lonely, and deprived of the things that really matter, namely purpose and people. How astonishing and lovely it could be if they were folded back into new forms of extended families and communities; such healing, such wholeness.

The big slow: unwrapping the narrative

A few tweaks, and the Biblical story makes sense

Patient revolution needs an intellectual framework and for those of us who are Christians, our understanding of the Christian picture of God and the world can give us one.

You have to work a bit, though. The Bible isn’t an easy book and plenty of it sits uncomfortably with our 21st century cultures. Not the least of the problems is the book of Genesis, which sets up the whole story but definitely does not sit all that well for those of us brought up on the kind of reporting that checks facts, balances opinions, and prizes cool-headed objectivity.

Which is where Biblical scholarship can, at least in theory, help. And perhaps the most refreshing set of studies I’ve come across were written by John H Walton, now emeritus professor at Wheaton College.

Walton comes from the conservative and evangelical wing of things — twenty years at Moody Bible Institute for example –but his take on the ancient literature is refreshing and helpful.

I’ve just read a book co-authored by him about Noah’s flood. Which is a topic frequently avoided in polite company, but he is arguably rehabilitating it. A few points:

  1. It is, in someone’s poignant words, ‘before theology.’ This is how people in that cultural flow learnt who they were and who God was. Abstract, propositional theology had yet to be invented.
  2. It was written in a different cultural flow than the one we inhabit, and written to different conventions.
  3. The author is not ‘describing an event’ but ‘authoritatively interpreting what God was doing’. Genesis’ flood account is ‘a rhetorically shaped account of an ancient flood tradition’. You can’t reconstruct what actually happened from it in the same way you can’t write the story of Guernica from Picasso’s painting of it.
  4. It uses hyperbole. As the authors point out, if I say ‘this suitcase weighs a ton’, I am using hyperbole. People of a literalist cast of mind would wonder if I am lying. But I am not lying. They just haven’t grasped the idiom I’m using. Similarly with cataclysmic events in the Bible. To show their cosmic significance, hyperbole is deployed. If the flood really happened, it was not universal, but in the Genesis interpretation, it is described in universal terms so that we see its cosmic significance.
  5. The big picture it paints is of
    • God bringing order to chaos, so that the whole of creation becomes his dwelling-place
    • Death as God’s judgement on sin, sometimes through catastrophe, sometimes through old age, but always and everywhere, ‘death reigns’, with sorrow and sadness always following.
    • But that’s the backing music. The melody is that God reigns even more supremely through kindness and mercy, in and through his care for his people, who are themselves (or are supposed to be) order-bringers and enjoyers of his company.

So, we can see a picture of God that one day involves

  • God’s whole creation re-formed as his dwelling place
  • Humans, in relationship with him, working towards that final destination
  • Not, it is true, walking a straight line.
  • Us happy to be slow in that work, not seeing its beginning or forcing its end, but fulfilling our bit of the story.

Unveiling the Patient Revolution: 25 Years of Global Transformation

Photo by Duane Mendes on Unsplash

Looking at the news, you have to close your eyes and ears a bit at the moment. But there’s a longer view. As I write it is almost a quarter of a century since 1990. Here’s some of what I came across this week. In that quarter-century:

  • Measured poverty in the two largest countries in the world has declined from 60% of the population in India and 50% of the population in China to 2% in India and O.something % in China 1
  • Solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy have (from almost nothing) joined with hydro (which is much older) to make a third of the world’s electricity generation and a seventh of the world’s total energy use. 2
  • The UK economy has grown by 80% and its carbon dioxide output has halved.3
  • This year (2024) of elections has seen setbacks for those with autocratic instincts in India and Poland, for example, and the ANC in South Africa has been given a good shake and told to swap its self-enrichment and go back to the national enrichment project in the days of Mandela — democracy working.
  • A local charity, the Romsey Mill here in Cambridge, has altered the lives of single mums, autistic teenagers, pre-schoolers, and teens, giving them self-confidence and better life choices and incidentally saving the government a fortune.

It isn’t hard to imagine in the next 25 years, in the UK for example, the mixture of rooftop solar, batteries and electric cars spreading through the nation like double glazing did in the last generation. And just as our forebears build reservoirs in the 1930s that still supply our water today, so we’ll have energy and transport powered by the sun that generations ahead of us, as far down the future as we can see, will no longer have to worry about.

These streams of patient revolution are streams in an ocean full of all kinds of currents. But imagine a Romsey Mill in every town! Imagine the Mill as just one of a swarm, or a hive, of Christian-inspired social transformation initiatives, buzzing through the whole country! Imagine having to go to nowhere and to no-one for the energy to power our lives! Imagine poverty driven back in every place! Imagine reversing the growth of CO2! Patient revolution!

The mistaken things we are taught

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

This is a post is about ‘Christian problems’ so it may not be relevant to you, but it is relevant to the theme of ‘slow mission’ or ‘patient revolution’, because the Christian faith is the very essence of a slow-burning, profound revolution in thought and life. (Even allowing for Christianity’s zany twists and turns throught its long history.)

I can’t count how many times I have been encouraged from talks in churches to do the following:

  1. Pray more
  2. Read my Bible more
  3. Introduce others to Jesus and church.

Occasionally there’s a radical addition like

4. Volunteer for things in church

While this is at one level right, at another level it is completely wrong. The really big deal about the Christian faith is the transformed relationships. That is what the letters in the New Testament are mostly concerned with. That’s what the Beatitudes are about, and when Jesus is asked to summarize the law and the prophets, he comes up with love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbour with the same vehemence that you defend, justify and serve yourself.

In other words, if you had a highlights reel of the New Testament, it’s about transforming our relationships.

  • Marriage ceases to be a power struggle (well, ideally) and become, s a place where each partner denies their natural power-seeking instincts in order to lovingly to make the other partner thrive.
  • Child rearing becomes a matter of unconditional love rather than performance-related benefits
  • Employees’ work becomes devotion to Jesus.
  • Employers have to recognize we’re all the same before God and treat their employees as fellow humans rather than machinery.
  • This sense of love and equality then spreads out to the poor and sick

In the story of how the Church has got on with this task over the 50 generations since the apostles, you have to edit out quite a lot of stuff, but (I argue) you are still left with a basic framework which is that this happened. The parts of the world tainted by the Christian faith are seriously different from the (diminishing) parts that aren’t. Even a nation like India (less than 5% Christian officially) has been seriously changed by an encounter with Christian thinking. Despite thousands of years of history and an evanescence of philosophical systems, it was only after a brush with Christianity that Dalits were treated as human beings rather than animals, I believe, for example.

And we wouldn’t have modern-sounding and secular-sounding things like human rights without the virus of Christianity having becoming endemic among us. (That is still why some nations see ‘human rights’ as just another way the West is trying to get one over them; they recognize how alien it is.)

(In this understanding, I like many others, have been influenced by historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind)

So all the more impoverishing, if that’s a word, when Christian devotion is reduced to a few performance-management variables like how much Bible you read each day. I suppose it’s true that Bible reading gets you exposed to the important stuff, but we mustn’t miss the inportant stuff itself. In a world of spin and hype, and a coming world perhaps of AI-fakery, transformed relationships sound through the Universe like a great bell.

Humph.